Joe Biden faces new scrutiny from Dems over behaviour with women

Nevada Democrat Lucy Flores said a kiss on the back on her head from the former vice president made her feel uncomfortable

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the United States Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo
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Former US vice president Joe Biden on Sunday defended his interactions with women, saying he does not he doesn't believe he's ever acted inappropriately. But a Nevada politician's assertion that Mr Biden's kiss on the back of her head made her feel uncomfortable prompted some Democrats to question whether the 76-year-old is too out of step with his own party to run a successful 2020 presidential campaign.

The episode, recounted by Democrat Lucy Flores, highlighted an aspect of politician's persona that has been publicly known for years: the affectionate whispers, hugs and shoulder squeezes he has long doled out to women, often on camera and at high-profile public events. In a moment of national reckoning over sexual harassment and the treatment of women by powerful men, some Democrats said Mr Biden's actions have taken on a new light.

"It looks different in 2019," said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. Cardona said that while the former vice president's behaviour is not automatically disqualifying for the presidency, "it all depends on how he continues to respond to this. He has to acknowledge that his behaviour made some women uncomfortable."

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Biden said it was never his intention to make women feel discomfort.

"In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort," he said. "And not once – never – did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully."

Ms Flores' account of the 2014 incident comes at a crucial moment for Mr Biden. He has been wrestling for months with a final decision on whether to run for president, blowing through several self-imposed deadlines.

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary has sped on without him, with more than a dozen candidates in the race, including a record number of women and minorities. Veterans like Vermont senator Bernie Sanders have shown surprising strength, while newer White House hopefuls like California senator Kamala Harris and Texan Beto O'Rourke have drawn big crowds and displayed early fundraising prowess.

Mr Biden still leads most early polls, buoyed by broad name recognition and the goodwill he generated during eight years as President Barack Obama's second-in-command.

Nancy Bobo, an Iowa activist who was among Mr Obama's earliest supporters in the state, shares that view. She fears the episode with Ms Flores suggests Democrats may try to tear down their most-qualified candidate.

"I can just see what's coming at him," Ms Bobo said." And it's going to come at him from the Democrats."

None of Mr Biden's potential rivals defended him following Ms Flores' allegations. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she believed Ms Flores and that Mr Biden "needs to give an answer" about what occurred.

White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said Ms Flores was "quite bold" to "go up against the highest levels of her political party" with the allegations and suggested that Mr Biden should consider apologising to Ms Flores. Ms Conway deflected questions about the numerous women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, allegations he denies.

Ms Flores told Associated Press on Sunday that she had been mulling coming forward for years. The tipping point for her, she said, was Mr Biden's meeting in March with 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.

"I saw that she was meeting with him and I thought to myself that if I don't say something now, I'm going to regret this," Ms Flores said.

Ms Flores said she approached only New York Magazine to publish her account of her encounter with Mr Biden and that the magazine had fact-checked the piece after she submitted it. She said that she had provided the magazine with the names of several people she confided with about the incident soon after it occurred. She said she also "shared a conversation with a former staffer" about the episode.

Ms Flores declined to name any of those people to AP, saying that "no one is willing to speak publicly."

The AP tried to contact several advisers and aides from Ms Flores' 2014 campaign, but was unable to obtain any independent verification of her account.

Ms Flores said Mr Biden's team has not been in touch with her since her story was published. She said she would be satisfied if Biden simply acknowledged the discomfort the episode caused her.

"I do think that if he truly wants to listen, he will make himself available," she said.